Sugar does not relieve newborn pain

2 September 2010

Sugar given to newborn babies as a routine form of pain relief does not work, according to a new study led by UCL researchers and published today in The Lancet.

Instead, sucrose changes the facial expressions of some babies giving the impression that pain is being relieved. The finding could lead to future changes in healthcare policy as oral sucrose is frequently given to relieve procedural pain in newborn babies who must undergo invasive procedures, such as taking blood from a vein or heel lances.

Premature baby

The trial, funded by the Medical Research Council, studied 59 newborn, healthy babies at University College Hospital and found that activity in the pain areas of the brain did not differ regardless of whether they were given sucrose for pain relief. There was little difference between the infants’ leg reflex reactions either, which also indicates discomfort.

Scientists measured pain activity in the brain and spinal cord before and after babies had undergone a routine heel lance – a standard procedure used to collect blood samples from babies. Half the babies were given a sucrose solution prior to the lance, as per the standard procedure, and the remainder were given sterilised water. Brain activity was measured using neonatal electroencephalography (EEG) and spinal cord pain reflex was recorded with electromyography (EMG).

Dr Rebeccah Slater (UCL Neuroscience, Physiology & Pharmacology), who led the study, said: “Our findings indicate that sucrose is not an effective pain relief drug. This is especially important in view of the increasing evidence that pain causes short and long-term adverse effects of infant neurodevelopment. While we remain unsure of the impact pain has, we suggest that it is not used routinely to relieve pain in infants without further investigation.”

Professor Chris Kennard, chair of the MRC’s Neuroscience and Mental Health funding board said: “This trial has significant implications for healthcare policy and is a first class example of where MRC research is helping bring scientific discoveries from laboratory bench to patient bedside more quickly. With uncertainty around the role that pain plays in a baby’s neurodevelopment, this research is a vital tool for informing healthcare decision makers. Scientific advancements like these would not be possible without the support of medical research volunteers and families and scientists remain indebted to the huge contribution from members of the public.”

The paper, ‘Oral sucrose as an analgesic drug for procedural pain in newborn infants: a randomised controlled trial’ is published in The Lancet today - see link above.


UCL context

UCL, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust and UCL Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) together make up UCL Partners, designated one of the UK’s first academic health science centres by the Department of Health.

UCL Partners brings together the combined skill and expertise of its clinicians and researchers to focus on child health, eyes and vision, immunology and transplantation, infectious diseases, neurological disorders, women's health, cardiovascular research and cancer.

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